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Zulgad: Wild GM Bill Guerin makes expectations clear with acquisition of Marc-Andre Fleury

NHL: Boston Bruins at Chicago Blackhawks
Mar 15, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) makes a save against the Boston Bruins during the third period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

How will Cam Talbot react?

That seemed to be the big question Monday after Wild general manager Bill Guerin acquired future Hall of Fame goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from Chicago for a conditional second-round draft pick that will bump up to a first if the Wild make the Western Conference finals and Fleury wins at least four games in the opening two rounds.

“Cam’s been great. I talked to Cam yesterday and I talked to him today and he has been absolutely fantastic,” Guerin said. “He was one of the first people to reach out to Flower. I’m so confident in Cam Talbot as a player and as a person that this will go well. We’re all after the same thing and there’s no room for …”

Guerin briefly thought over his choice of words and then did what he does best. He didn’t hold back. ” … petty B.S.” Only Guerin didn’t say B.S. before adding, “We’re on a team together and we’re trying to win and Cam’s an unbelievable teammate and I know he’s going to be awesome.”

In reality, Talbot doesn’t have a choice. The Wild’s goaltending with Talbot and Kappo Kahkonen hadn’t been good enough this season and the days of being satisfied with getting into the playoffs are long gone. Guerin won two Stanley Cups as a player and two more as an executive with the Pittsburgh Penguins and simply making it out of the regular season is a failure in his mind. Especially with this Wild team.

That’s why he worked to acquire the 37-year-old Fleury and also added punishing-defenseman Jacob Middleton to go along with punishing-winger Nicolas Deslauriers. Fourth-line center Tyson Jost was brought in from Colorado last week for Nico Sturm. The Wild is now better in goal and bigger and tougher up front and on the blueline.

Teams had taken advantage of Talbot and Kahkonen’s struggles — Kahkonen was traded to San Jose in the Middleton deal — and also pushed around the Wild of late as games took on more of a playoff feel. Guerin took steps to ending those problems with his deadline moves.

Is Talbot overjoyed at losing the No. 1 job to Fleury? Probably not. But while Guerin is sympathetic to this, he also knows that can’t be a deciding factor. Just like he can’t worry about the fact Fleury is in the final season of his contract, or how the players who will be scratched in favor of Middleton and Deslauriers will feel.

For far too long, the Wild felt like a team that was run by certain players instead of the general manager and coach. That group has been cleared out by Guerin and it’s now clear that Guerin and coach Dean Evason are in charge. There is no doubt about that.

The Wild entered Monday night’s game against Vegas in third place in the Central Division with 76 points, putting them a point behind the Blues, and a tie-breaker ahead of Nashville, the first wild card team. The Wild hold the lead because they had two games in hand on the Predators. Minnesota also was four points up on Vegas, which is in the final wild card spot.

In other words, there is room to move up but also room to fall out of the postseason picture. Considering the Wild were atop the NHL after a 19-5-1 start, missing the playoffs would qualify as a disaster for a team that will spend the next three seasons in salary cap hell.

Guerin is banking on the fact that Fleury will return to the Vezina-trophy winning form he displayed last season with Vegas (1.98 goals-against average, .928 save percentage) and that his struggles in Chicago (2.95, .908) were the result of playing behind a bad Blackhawks team that had issues on defense. It was Fleury who helped eliminate the Wild in seven games in the first-round last season. The Golden Knights also punished the Wild physically.

Guerin saw Fleury help the Penguins win a Stanley Cup in 2009 when they became teammates after Guerin was acquired in a deadline deal. Fleury won two more Cups with Pittsburgh when Guerin was an executive, although he only played in two games in the 2016 postseason.

“It’s no secret, I know Flower, I know him very well,” Guerin said Monday after traveling from Chicago to Minnesota aboard owner Craig Leipold’s private plane with Fleury. “He’s had a lot of playoff success. I think he can help all of us. That experience is key. We just want him to come in here and play, be himself. It’s not all on him or all on the new guys, they are part of the team. We still have to work together. … We just want them to come in and have fun and play and help us win games and get into the playoffs.”

And ideally make the Wild’s first playoff run since the 2003 team made that improbable journey to the Western Conference Finals. The Wild have made the playoffs nine times since then but haven’t gotten past the second round.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to come in here on a good team and have a chance of making a run,” said Fleury, who had final say over where he was traded or if he was traded at all. “I’m excited about that.”

Wild players and fans should be as well. Guerin saw an opportunity to improve his team and he took it. In Guerin’s words there was no time for worrying about petty B.S. or whose feelings might be hurt. The Wild was a better team when Monday ended than they were when it began and that’s all that mattered.